FICTION.

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MOVING OUT, ONE CD AT A TIME
[posted 02.15.2005]

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THEA LOVED THE WAY he added an extra syllable to the word cold when he sang; the way he closed his eyes, tilting his head slightly to the left when he got to the chorus, and the way his rough, warm hands reached for her in the darkness of their cool bedroom at night. But she no longer liked him, and no amount of singing would change that.

- – -

On the bus that morning she was baffled by the utter joy resonating from the rosy-faced teen girl who sat in front of her, squealing down her cell phone for three long stops already. It was just after eight, too early to be so energized about anything, let alone a boy — a boy who no doubt would be forgotten next week or, more tragically, would forget this girl before she had the chance to be known.

“He’s sooooo awesome, sooooo funny, and I, like, couldn’t even believe that he was telling me that he was into me too!” She gushed into a tiny silver phone, her matching braces luminous in the morning sun. Although Thea wanted to ignore this enthusiastic show, she couldn’t help but be drawn in, wondering just how long “incredibly long” could be. Had this girl been dazzled for a year or merely a few days? Time had a way of redefining itself with age. An eternity might be recalled as a vague flash.

It seemed his acknowledgment had made the girl’s previously meager existence somehow worthwhile, and at the age of 15, 21, 47, what could be more pleasing? What gave Thea the right to sit and scowl just because her own graying relationship had lost that silver phone jubilation? What good would it do to warn this girl of the heartache that lay ahead? She would only shrug off such advice with a whatever, never giving the surly stranger another thought.

- – -

Thursday seemed as good a day as any to rebuild a life. Still, Thea couldn’t help feeling somewhat deceitful entering the apartment without him there. But it wasn’t as if she was forcing her way in; he had asked her to come. She moved slowly down the hall to the bedroom, stuck in a daze of memory, reflecting on the unmade bed where they had slept as a jumble of warm arms and legs for the past three years. People, she thought, should never stay together for the sake of a great collection of music.

Down on all fours, she peered under the bed, searching out lost or forgotten things. It was an uncanny image when she stopped to think about it; she had always hated this position… But all that she gave little thought as she rummaged around. Instead Thea recalled the message he’d left on her friend’s answering machine, his tone rigid, barbed, opposite of most anything he had ever been.

“Yeah it’s me. Could you come get the rest of your things outta here?”

More a statement than a question.

“You know my schedule, but that doesn’t matter since you still have the key. Anyhow, just come get it. I’m sick” — he hissed the word — “of looking at it.”

She supposed that was to be expected. It had been two weeks since she abandoned their life — not enough time to collect all her belongings, but long enough for him to become bitter about a union that had proved far more trouble than it was worth.

Their demise had built slowly, inconspicuously over the last year, the rumblings of change faint in the distance. How odd that she could wake up one ordinary day and realize that she no longer knew or even much liked the person beside her, that in a single night he had silently transformed into someone incredibly repellent.

Thea’s stomach churned. Should she at least have tried to convert him back into the someone she knew?

No. She could not turn a blind eye and she did not believe in fairy tales. To accept things as they were was a paved road to depression. Escape from this stranger posing as her companion was her only reasonable option.

Strangers were not safe. Her mother had taught her that long ago. “Don’t talk to them. Don’t listen to them, and if you can help it, don’t look at them,” she would lecture, madness blazing in her eyes. Strangers might appear safe and familiar, therefore harmless, but they were none of these things, rather well-disguised wolves. In her mother’s twisted telling, ill-fated Little Red Riding Hood never knew a heroic woodsman; her story always ended in tragedy. Yet as Thea looked around the bedroom, her eyes falling on his furry slippers, she had to admit she still thought him more cuddly bear than sly wolf.

How to pinpoint a life-altering event? It was like trying to find grains of sugar in a barrel of salt. Some of the changes in Thea’s life were simple: she’d changed jobs, changed hairstyles, turned 30, drastically modified her daily intake of wheat and dairy. (But surely better pay, better hair and better health didn’t have to destroy a relationship — at least, that’s not what her naturopath had promised.) He had changed, too, becoming more mechanical, cynical and dull, someone who rarely sang anything. He could turn cold in a single syllable (typically “no”) and increasingly resembled her uncle John, who was tolerable only once a year at Christmas and certainly was no one she wanted to live with.

Yet these changes had little to do with her departure. In the end the final action had been minuscule, perhaps unnoticeable to the naked eye, visible only to the perceptive heart.

She had bought a CD.

Joint ownership — that progression from shared insignificant items like cornflakes and toothpaste to silverware and furniture to the commitment clinchers, a car, a house, 2.5 kids — was what kept couples like them together, it seemed. Such mutual possession cemented two people as an us, Jack and Jill tumbling down blissfully broken, Ken and Barbie fake plastic wonderful, Romeo and Juliet.

Yet Thea still drove her beat-up Honda Civic (when it worked) and even owned her own toaster oven — facts that made her wonder if their relationship had been doomed from the start. They had never invested in a major appliance, unless one counted the abdominizer, bought two years ago in haste (really desperation) to develop toned stomachs in time for their tropical vacation. Now it gathered dust in the closet, while his stomach remained the small pudgy pillow where she had rested her head while watching late night TV.

- – -

Thea entered the store that day just to pass the time (he was late again). She had wandered from row to row, stopping at the occasional listening booth, content to listen and watch as the unknowing world passed her by, until the clerk walked up.

“I like this one.” He motioned to the spare headphones in a mind-if-I-sit-down kind of gesture.

She looked up, prepared to tell him she already owned that CD, but found herself smiling as he slid the headphones over his dark wavy locks. He began to sway, almost undetectably at first, not wildly, but freely. Uninhibited. Gently, he grazed her shoulder so that she was swaying too.

“It’s pretty good, eh?” he beamed, his straight shiny teeth sparkling back at her. She smiled, self-conscious. She hoped she didn’t appear too ordinary — or worse, old.

“Do you like it?” he asked, removing his headphones.

So free, so friendly, she thought to herself. “Well, I’ve never heard it described in that way, but sure.”

“Are you interested—-” He hesitated.

“...in the CD?”

Bound by youthful enthusiasm, she bought it.

- – -

“Why did you buy this? We already have it. Remember?”

It had taken him a week to notice the new disc on the rack beside its double.

“I know,” she replied flatly, not looking up as she cut a cucumber sandwich.

“Then why did you buy it? Is something wrong?”

“No, everything is fine.”

She began moving her things out the next week.

- – -

Thea was scanning the bedroom one more time, trying to pinpoint anything she might have missed, when the sound of the front door rattling open startled her. Muffled voices and unfamiliar laughter followed. He was at work, she realized with alarm. They — he was being robbed.

Armed with only a cell phone, she rushed into the closet to hide. Her foot sank into his dirty laundry — the smell of last week’s gym socks was unthinkable, unbearable, but at least she was out of view. She held her breath, gulping in only the tiniest amount of gritty air, as she reached for the phone at the bottom of her handbag.

She was safe for now. From the sounds of the commotion outside — she thought she heard furniture shifting back and forth — she guessed the intruders were preoccupied ransacking the living room. But it would only be a matter of time before they tired of searching for hidden sofa treasure and made their way to the bedroom. She regretted there were no priceless gems to offer on his behalf — just worthless sentimental junk like the hockey puck that had sent him to the hospital after he took a shot to the head.

She would have to call for help.

The dispatcher answered immediately, her voice calm and reassuring.

“I’m being robbed,” Thea whispered frantically.

“I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to speak up. I can’t hear you — you’re breaking up — is it possible for you to speak up, ma’am?”

“Robbed, I’m being robbed! They’re in the apartment. Please send someone now… before they kill me.”

“OK, ma’am. Please remain calm. Can you tell me your location?”

“Yes, yes, I’m…. oh no, I think they’re coming!” she squeaked as footsteps rushed down the hall. “Hurry, hurry, you must, oh… I’m at 57 Waverly Way, apartment one-one-five,” she whispered before shutting off the phone. She desperately hoped the dispatcher had gotten the details right. Oh, why hadn’t she gone with a more high-end phone, one that no doubt would have permitted better reception?

Determined not to be an easy victim, she shuffled around the closet, searching for some form of defense, until her hand grazed the top of a solid, cold, round mass. She had forgotten about his brief interest in bowling. At the time she had thought it a waste for him to invest in his own ball because, like so many things, she was convinced it was just another passing phase. But at this moment she was happy to find it collecting dust beside the abdominizer.

Locking her small fingers in the oversized holes, Thea prepared for battle. She hadn’t really thought of a plan of action and only seconds later heard them enter the bedroom. She couldn’t be sure how many of them were, she thought at least three from the sounds of things.

Read the conclusion.

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trish elms is a thursday’s child; she knows she has far to go. originally born and brewed in nova scotia, she now lives, loves and writes from ottawa, ontario. her poetry has been published in quills and will also be featured in harpweaver.